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Webmatters : The American assault on Belleau Wood June 1918
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Belleau Wood 1918

The second battle of the Marne

On 21st March 1918 in a bid to win the war before the recently arrived American Army could make its full impact felt, the German Army launched a massive assault against the British Fifth Army in the area of St Quentin in the Somme.

Initially the British lost all cohesion and collapsed against the battering blow, but little by little the German advance was slowed and ultimately halted; but the Germans had retaken in days what the British had struggled over months to take.

This first offensive was halted on 6th April, but three days later on the 9th a second blow fell on the British in the Ypres salient.

Exhausted British units were brought down to the quiet area of the Chemin des Dames for rest only to be hit by a third offensive launched on 27th May. This third onslaught smashed its way through the French and British held lines along the Chemin des Dames (The scene of terrible fighting by the French in 1917).

Following a whirlwind bombardment, lasting three hours, seventeen German Divisions penetrated the French lines held by just six Divisions. Within four days the Germans had advanced about fifty kilometres and reached Château-Thierry and the river Marne.

Not since the opening of the war in 1914 had Paris seemed so vulnerable. The second battle of the Marne was in progress.

In his General Order 107 on 30th May 1918 General Pétain told his soldiers how although the superior weight of the enemy had broken their forward lines, the reserves were rushing forward and that they would not only break the German thrust but counter it.

Debout, les héros de la Marne ! Pour vos foyers, pour la France, en avant !

Rise, heroes of the Marne! For your homes, for France, forward!

Many of these Heroes of the Marne were about to prove to be American soldiers

French reserves had indeed rushed forward but their uncoordinated interventions had not been sufficient to stem the tide of the German advance.

German trench mortar -- 17 cm minenwerfer
Having realised that most of the French reserves were gathering around Château-Thierry the Germans decided to press westwards down the Ourcq Valley between the forest of Villers-Cotterets and the Marne. In the area of Belleau the defence was in the hands of what was left of the French 152nd and 158th Regiments. The battle for the village and wood opened on 2nd June with a fierce bombardment by artillery and heavy mortars—the much detested (by the British at any rate) Minenwerfer.

Despite acts of collective heroism the weight of numbers bearing down on them was simply too great for the Frenchmen.

They were aware, however, that the US 2nd Division was coming up to relieve them. It was a matter of holding on to as much ground as possible to give the Americans time to deploy and take over the line.

The US 2nd Division was composed of the 3rd Brigade (9th and 23rd Infantry Regiments) and
the 4th Brigade (5th and 6th Regiments of the US Marines).

Each regiment consisted of three battalions and a machine gun company giving a total strength of almost 4,000 men. Including its engineers and artillery a US Division weighed in at about 28,000 soldiers—twice the size of a British or French Division and by this stage of the war sometimes four times the size in reality.

On 3rd June the tired French attempted a counter attack. In itself it achieved little in the way of territorial gains, but the German reserves were now exhausted as well. As the US 2nd Division took over the line that evening, the front had begun to stabilise.

The tide was about to turn, and with a greater rapidity than any of the participants could ever have envisaged. When it was suggested to Captain Lloyd Williams of the 2nd Battalion 5th Marines Regiment that the best thing to do for the moment was retreat he famously replied: Retreat, hell. We just got here.

Williams would not survive the coming battle. He was wounded on 11th June during an attack on Belleau Wood and died the following day. His remains were returned after the war to Berryville, Virginia.

 

Belleau Wood

In front of Torcy and Belleau Wood lay the 4th US Marine Brigade composed of the 5th and 6th Regiments US Marines.

On their right the 3rd Brigade stationed the 23rd US Infantry Regiment in the area of Le Thiolet and the 9th Regiment on the far the right flank in front of Vaux.

Paris 53 miles (85 km)

Paris is just over 80 kilometres away

The time of quite sectors and hand-holding for the Americans had finished, they were in the midst of a furious and desperate battle, the moment had come to stand up and be counted.

The pressure on Major General Omar Bundy commanding the Indian Head Division to deliver, was enormous.

Over the next few days the Americans prepared their positions, the Marines of General James Harbord refusing to prepare a second line of defence as it was deemed not necessary. The Marines, the General declared, will hold their ground.

General Harbord had a habit of wearing a French Adrian helmet.

La ferme des Mares

On 4th June this was put to the test when the Germans launched an attack against the 5th Marines holding an area called the Ferme des Mares. It was an important psychological moment for this was as close to Paris as the Germans ever reached. The Marines had stood true to their word.